Five Guidelines for Having Tolerant Conversations

A number of years ago I had a set of Mormon missionaries show up at my door. As an evangelical Christian pastor I probably wasn’t going to be the easiest conversation that they had in the neighborhood.

I told the guys that we could have a conversation but that we needed to agree to a couple of caveats first.

1. We needed to agree we were both seeking to serve God as best we could.
2. We needed to agree that we were not both right.
3. We needed to agree that we were going to focus on the first agreement rather than the second.

You see if we focused on the second agreement then the conversation would center on trying to prove each other wrong, a debate. But if we focused on the first agreement then we’d be focusing on trying to reach a mutual understanding of what it meant to serve God.

We engaged in an ongoing conversation over about three months. In the end we parted as friends each with a deeper understanding of the others position but neither of us having “budged”.

That experience helped me learn a couple things about what it means to have a “tolerance” conversation. I’d like to share five guidelines for having conversations between folks of disparate points of view.

1. You have to understand that tolerance means disagreement.

You don’t “tolerate” things, people, or positions with which you agree. That means if you’re going to enter into conversations that are categorized as being “tolerant” they will be with people that hold a position that is opposed to yours. That being said you have to determine if your goal in the conversation is to “convert” someone to your point of view, or to help each other reach a deeper level of understanding.

2. You have to hold stereotypes at bay.

It’s easy to label someone based on stereotypes. Imagine a conversation between someone who has been labeled as a “conservative christian” and someone described as a “liberal democrat”. Each of those descriptions carry with them enough baggage to incur more charges than a transatlantic airline ticket.

If you try to have a conversation through the lenses of stereotypes you wind up ascribing meaning to words that may not be intended. Unfortunately it is almost impossible to completely ignore or erase stereotypes. Recognizing that they’re there and may be at play is important in creating an atmosphere of understanding. Holding off stereotypes is critical.

3. You have to avoid “always” and “never”

Absolutes are not only grandiose but they very rarely accurately apply. It’s easy to say to someone  “You people always…” or “You just never…” That type of statement not only creates a blanket label but it also invokes stereotypes. The truth is that you never know if someone “always” or “never” because you aren’t always around them, so let the absolutes go.

4. You cannot ascribe motive

This one is huge and is, perhaps, the biggest challenge. It is easy to accuse someone of “hating”, which is an internal motive, because you interpret their external actions through your own set of experiences.

By way of example: if I make the statement that I am not sure where I stand on the issue of same sex marriage, I know conservative Christians who would react by saying that I am backsliding and abandoning biblical truth. At the same time there would be those in the LGBT community who would quickly label me as one of those Christian haters. In either case they’d be wrong specifically because they’d be ascribing motive to my words.

Unfortunately the issue is far more complex than whether or not to allow two people to be defined as a married couple but if you jump straight to ascribing motive to my words then there is no opportunity to engage in the kind of deeper dialogue that fosters understanding.

5. You have to decide what will be and acceptable outcome to the conversation

This is where we come full circle. Remember that the starting point was disagreement, hence the need for tolerance. If the only acceptable outcome for the conversation is converting someone to your point of view then the risk is high for the conversation to break down at some point. If instead the goal is to reach deeper mutual understanding then the chances for good conversation are greatly increased.

We hold the right to freedom of speech as a core right for people everywhere. Given that people will express their opinions, and given that those opinions are becoming increasingly polarized these days, you can either choose to have good conversations with fewer people accompanied by more arguments, or learn to converse with the folks that require you to be “tolerant”. Which will you choose?

What are some examples of good “tolerant” conversation you’ve had?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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4 thoughts on “Five Guidelines for Having Tolerant Conversations

  1. Hey Curtis,
    I find your viewpoint interesting. We may have different beliefs but the focus by both of us is respect for other people.
    My last tolerant conversation was my monologe yesterday when I tried to define what tolerance really means to me and putting it on paper for my blog. It has hard to put boundaries on the word, but interesting nonetheless.
    Peace!